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Moses Gates

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Tunnel Vision

The search for an 18th century explorer inside the underground tunnels of Paris

Most visitors to Paris know the catacombs as a 45-minute, eight-euro tour through the main Parisian ossuary—basically a giant underground boneyard. The Paris of the late 1700s was one of the densest urban areas in the world. There are many things about managing this kind of urban environment that we just take for granted nowadays—like what happens to what you flush down the toilet, or how freshwater suddenly appears after turning a handle on a faucet—that were developed as ingenious solutions to once intractable problems. Waterborne diseases like cholera would devastate urban communities, a result of sewage mixing with drinking water. Sewer systems, aqueducts—these were inventions of necessity, not convenience.

The ossuaries were another of these inventions. In the 18th century, Paris was the largest city in the world and, along with London, well along its path as the forebear of the modern metropolis. As such, it had to start dealing with one of the great problems of the modern metropolis: pollution. In addition to garbage, sewage, industrial waste, and all the other things we might think of as “pollutants” today, Paris had another pollutant that had to be dealt with: dead bodies. The main burial ground, Saints Innocents Cemetery, was smack-dab in the center of the city, right next to the main market. The size of Paris had exploded in the 17th and 18th centuries, tripling in population—and potential cadavers—during this time. The mass burials, each of which the parish church took a fee for, quickly overwhelmed the embattled cemetery. The smell of corpses was dominating the city center, with the putrefied remains causing disease. A solution was needed. Burials in the city proper were banned, new grounds were set up on what was then the outskirts of town, and Saints Innocents and other central cemeteries were exhumed, the bones treated and transferred underground to the old quarries.

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